Bob the barrister! Can he fix it? Bob the barrister! Yes he can – well, almost certainly if he’s at this premier construction set.
Build it and Atkin will come
“Our lifeblood is big, big projects,” begins pupillage committee member Rónán Hanna. “Vast international airports, huge offshore oil rigs and wind farms and major new flagship transport infrastructure… all big projects often with a big story behind them. What went wrong? Why did it cost so much? Why did it take so long? Why is it so broken? Those are the questions we typically deal with.”
Senior clerk Justin Wilson feels that “construction work is sometimes seen as quite dry, but the projects we work on are so technically complex and interesting that you’re almost doing quasi-engineering work.” Our junior sources agreed: “Getting to grips with the technology behind all these wonderful buildings is what makes construction interesting and quite unlike other parts of the commercial law.” Wilson also points out that this area of work is “tangible – you’re arguing over a bridge or an oil rig, and you can see it. For some weird human reason that resonates with people.”
“Getting to grips with the technology behind all these wonderful buildings is what makes construction interesting.”
Atkin’s members have played their part in the construction of household-name projects all over the globe. Take London – from the M25 and the Underground to the grand heights of the Shard and the Wembley and Olympic stadiums, the handiwork of members has left a mark. Further afield the set has worked on oil fields from the North Sea to Saudi Arabia plus much more major infrastructure in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Multiple cases surrounding the $5.2 billion project to widen the Panama Canal have landed at Atkin’s door and in the Middle East alone members have worked on matters connected to the Dubai Marina, Palm Jumeirah and international airports in Dubai, Qatar and Oman.
“We do work all over the world in weird and wonderful places,” Justin Wilson concludes, and Hanna adds that “there’s a lot of scope for travel even for very baby juniors.” One we spoke to had indeed just come back from working in Hong Kong on a public inquiry, and while some members focus more on domestic work “there’s always somebody jetting off to Singapore or Dubai” according to one source. “As a pupil I’ve never been anywhere… well, I’ve been to Basildon.” PFI work is the biggest trend for the set in the UK: “We’ve got lots of these disputes!” says Wilson. “They often rumble on forever.” David Streatfeild-James QC and Andrew Fenn secured one recent win in a £100 million dispute arising out of payment provisions in a 30-year contract for the operation of the M25. The set is also doing work in the wake of the Grenfell disaster: “We’ve got three people on the inquiry and we’ve had multiple trials over cladding issues and fire safety.”
Sources with an interest in commercial and international work found that construction offered the perfect blend of the two. This specialist set was established about 60 years ago and has top construction rankings from Chambers Global and Chambers UK; the latter also bestows top rankings for the set’s international arbitration and professional negligence work in the construction space. “When I joined 25 years ago people told me I was joining a load of brickies,” Wilson quips. These so-called 'brickies’ are also a dab hand at energy, natural resources and IT work.
Make or break
Atkin is used to taking instructions from magic and silver circle firms and hands out a tasty £72,500 pupillage award. The pupillage committee sifts through dozens of CVs to find those worthy of such a prize. “It’s good to see well-rounded applications as well as academic excellence,” says Hanna. “One candidate last year was an internationally top-ranked musician.”
About 25 applicants attend a 15-minute interview with a panel of three. Candidates are asked to present short submissions on a topical issue – should the Government allow Carillion to go into administration? Should university students be able to ban controversial speakers from their campuses? You get the picture. Those who impress are invited back for a longer interview with a larger panel of six or seven “firing questions at you.” A week beforehand, candidates get a set of papers and are asked to prepare a skeleton argument. They make an oral submission on the papers, after which they face more questions. That lasts roughly 30 minutes.
“I’d be slightly shocked if someone said they had a burning passion for construction in an interview!”
A pupil told us that not having a legal background wasn’t a disadvantage: “The process is about making arguments out of rational thought rather than tricky legal points.” But what about understanding the constructionindustry? “I’d be slightly shocked if someone said they had a burning passion for construction in an interview! The committee wants to get glimpses of your potential.” At the very least, hopefuls should show “an interest in the industry and want to learn more.”
“In our trade you meet a real range of people,” says Rónán Hanna. “Not only culturally and ethnically but from CFOs of oil majors through to a couple of young lads digging a hole in the ground.” Hanna emphasises the importance of being able to tweak your approach to fit: “The grand barrister in a suit might not get the best out of the witness.” You might not think of the construction industry as a sentimental one but working on projects that have gone wrong “means dealing with people who are very emotionally engaged. If it’s proven that a construction or project manager did a bad job then they will get sacked and their name will be tarred.” Clients can even face removal from a country in especially high-stakes cases. “On many occasions I’ll say, ‘You’d better start telling me the story,’ and they say, ‘You’d better get a bottle of vodka out!’”
Pupils complete two three-month seats in their first six months and spend their second six with one supervisor. Those we spoke to assisted on live cases but tended to do more ‘dead’ assignments from cases their supervisor had already done. On a typical day “you sit at your desk from 9am to 6.30pm and get on with that piece of work. You submit it, then you get another one – almost like an assignment on a course.”
Sources described these assignments as the “basic building blocks of a barrister’s practice” – opinions, advices, applications, skeleton arguments and more. “I’ve done lots of pleadings,” a pupil described. “I’ve also done a bit of arbitration adjudication.” On one assignment a pupil worked on a statement of claim regarding whether it was valid for the owner of a power station to terminate the contracts of people working there. Supervisors then “give you their version so you can compare good ways of doing X, Y and Z.” Supervisors compile a report assessing pupils’ work which later feeds into the tenancy decision.
“Any time I’ve got a question I can just blurt it out.”
Towards the end of each seat, pupils undergo assessed advocacy exercises before a judge, the pupillage committee and whichever members would like to attend… no pressure then! “It’s the closest experience I’ve had during pupillage to actual practice,” a baby junior said. “The final one is the one that counts – that is the time you take your feedback on board and shine.” Before that moment in the spotlight, pupils get a number of pieces of assessed work from members of chambers to do in about five weeks. This is followed by a test paper set by the pupillage committee – pupils have one week to work on that. This whole period is rounded off with the final advocacy test. In 2019 both pupils gained tenancy at Atkin.
With fewer than 50 members this is “one of the smallest commercial sets.” Many of the clerks and barristers have been at Atkin for decades, as Justin Wilson makes clear: “Between the four most senior clerks, we’ve been here for over 100 years. Many of the silks were pupils when I started so they’ve all grown up together and the junior members are doing the same now.” Chambers is based at Gray’s Inn with rooms overlooking the leafy park; junior sources felt “a sense of friendliness emanating through these walls. Any time I’ve got a question I can just blurt it out.” Friday drinks “tend to be well attended.” There’s also afternoon tea every day at, oh – “right about now, actually.” Pass the sugar?
A glance over members’ profiles suggests one source was right in thinking “you probably do need to have gone to a top uni to go to this set.”
1 Atkin Building,
- No of silks 19
- No of juniors 26
- No of pupils 2
- Contact [email protected]
- Method of application CV and covering letter
- Apply by 12 December 2018
- Pupillages (pa) two 12-month pupillages
- Income £72,500
- Tenancies in the last three years 5
Type of work undertaken
Applicants for pupillage should have a first-class degree or a good upper second-class degree. Postgraduate qualifications are viewed favourably but are not essential. Applications from non-law graduates are welcomed. Pre-existing knowledge of construction law is not required, although candidates should have a strong grounding in contract and tort law.
Applications for the year starting in September 2021 will open in December 2019 but dates are TBC and candidates should check Atkin Chambers’ website. Atkin Chambers is not part of the Pupillage Gateway. Application requirements include a CV, a covering letter of no more than two pages in length and two references — please see website for details.
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Bar, 2019
- Construction (Band 1)
- Energy & Natural Resources (Band 2)
- Information Technology (Band 2)
- International Arbitration: Construction/Engineering (Band 1)
- Professional Negligence: Technology & Construction (Band 1)